One on Every Corner
There’s a lot of talk about spiritual practice these days. “Mindfulness” is everywhere—I have three apps that claim to encourage mindfulness on my phone. In the marketplace of ideas we have everything from secular Buddhists to religious naturalists. Like Walmart or Starbucks, spiritual practice appears to create demand for itself merely by its ubiquity.
But what does a spiritual practice do? Create awareness? Encourage compassion? Increase dedication to task? Reinforce fortitude? Help us lose weight? Make the practitioner feel better? All of the above?
Thinkers in the Western tradition have long considered that four “cardinal” virtues lead to the good, considered life: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude. (“Cardinal” derives from the Latin word cardo, meaning “hinge.” Everything hinges on these virtues, in other words.)
Prudence. Justice. Temperance. Fortitude. And/or perhaps—thoughtfulness, caring, moderation, and strength. Something like that.
One Of The Older Professions
The Stoics—the original mindfulness teachers in the Western World—made these virtues the center of their spiritual practice, based in what they called reason. A Stoic meditates on the virtues and the way of nature, then attempts to go through the day living the virtues and conforming to the will of the universe . . . mindfully.
This practice generated small books of wisdom. What is now known as the Enchiridion, or “handbook,” is a collection of sayings from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote something usually titled Meditations, better titled “exhortations to himself.”
The Stoics realized—as had the Daoists and disciples of Confucius in China and the Buddhists and practitioners of the Upanishads in India (and others)—that for we human beings, the unmediated experience does not exist. As William Shakespeare put it: “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
We are disturbed not by things but by the views that we take of things . . . Those who do not think about it blame others; those who do think about it blame themselves. The wise forget all about blame.
Blaming our misfortunes on things outside of ourselves is perhaps the “natural” way of operating, but not the mindful way, and not a way that will produce prudence; justice; temperance; or fortitude.
Unmediated experience does not exist. And we need to keep that mindfully in the forefront of our thinking.
Get Your Mediation On
Marcus Aurelius said, “Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy” (Bk. II.8).
It sounds like a spiritual path worth taking because, as the Stoic Cicero put it, “Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with both reason and the way of nature. (On Invention II.53).
Since unmediated experience does not exist, we need to take a long, hard look at how we are mediating our experiences. That’s what’s called mindfulness or spiritual practice. Despite all the hype . . . it does work.